Pandemic Roommates

How a former childcare provider and a homeless aspiring rapper formed an unlikely friendship because of coronavirus

27 Jul 2020 | 12:56

Peggy Rey says not many people understand her friendship with Wilfredo Salaman. Rey is a 76-year-old former childcare provider. Salaman is a 35-year-old aspiring rapper from Puerto Rico, who first met Rey while he was homeless, living under scaffolding outside her building. And for the last three months the two have been living together in Rey’s studio apartment in Chelsea.

Their cohabitation is peculiar, Rey admits, and it is a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.

In December 2019, Salaman, who Rey calls “Will,” had found some stability after a setback. Throughout his adult life, he has experienced homelessness intermittently. Born in the Bronx, Salaman grew up in Puerto Rico. In 2013, Salaman decided to move to New York in pursuit of his dream of working in the entertainment industry, first sparked by family members who were salsa singers on the island.

“I came here homeless straight from the plane,” said Salaman. “I started in the shelter system and worked my way out of the streets.”

He spent a couple of years in Illinois, but after losing work there, he returned to the city resolved to follow his dreams. But still, he had no place to stay, and spent a few months on the streets. It was at this time that he met Rey, who would give him some money to help her take heavy packages up to her apartment. She noted how excited Salaman was when a pair of police officers from the 10th precinct helped Salaman get back on his feet with a fresh hair cut, food, a new suit, and help in landing a job at a local coffee shop. He was able to find housing and was off the streets. It was a feel-good story that was featured in the Daily News and amNY.

“It Was Horrible, Horrible”

But along came the coronavirus, and it knocked away Salaman’s progress. He was laid off from his job and began to have troubles with his landlord. So he gave Rey a call.

When she heard from Salaman, Rey was also in need. She is diabetic, and at high risk for the coronavirus, and feared leaving her apartment. Rey started taking her dog, Licorice, up to the roof for walks so that she didn’t have to expose herself to the public.

“I was in such a knot inside. I was quarantined in my apartment. I didn’t see anybody or talk to anybody. It was horrible, horrible,” said Rey about the initial months of the pandemic. “My neighbor came home one day and I was sitting on the steps out in the hall, just hysterical crying. I had to release how I felt right inside. I don’t want to be here by myself. And it was shortly after that that Will and I reached an agreement for him to stay here. It’s made all the difference.”

During a sultry Sunday afternoon, Rey and Salaman sat side-by-side on a bed in the studio apartment on West 16th Street. It’s the bed that Salaman sleeps on, but also where the two typically eat their meals and watch television. Above them is a wooden loft built into the apartment, which Rey calls the “upstairs” and it’s also where she sleeps. The room is cramped but homey, decorated with photos of Rey’s family. Her dog, Licorice, slept at the foot of the bed as Rey and Salaman talked about what it was like to go from being friendly acquaintances to roommates in close quarters during a global pandemic.

In their agreement, Rey said Salaman could stay with her if he would walk Licorice, helped run her errands and pitch in around the apartment. She would cook his meals. So far, it’s been working pretty well.

“He’s the nicest person I think I’ve ever met. He’s so honest. He’s so respectful,” said Rey. “And he’s so clean. He must brush his teeth five times a day.”

Salaman said it was to maintain his bright smile.

“She’s a great lady. She’s very caregiving, very loving,” said Salaman. “She’s a great friend to me.”

A Lifelong Bond

Like any roommates, they’ve had their quibbles. Rey said Salaman can be stubborn, and Salaman said Rey likes things done in a very particular way — even the way he folds his clothes.

“He gets mad at me every once in a while because everything’s my way,” said Rey.

But they’ve found some levity together during the quarantine as Salaman has shared his interest in culture with her. They watch his favorite television shows together such as the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “George Lopez Show” and “Two and A Half Men.” He’s played new music for her, taught her about celebrities and rules of basketball.

He’s also taught her something perhaps even more enduring about society’s perception of people experiencing homelessness. She said in the past she’s been somewhat resentful of the people who would sleep outside her building, but after building this unlikely friendship with Salaman, Rey said she’s trying to be more receptive and engage them in conversation.

As for the future of their living arrangement, Salaman said he will move on when he’s able to find a new job and get back on his feet. Rey said the two now have a lifelong bond that is wholly due to the pandemic.

“I’m going to hate to see him leave,” she said. “I told him he moves on with his life and he hits bumpy roads or anything he always can always come back here. Always.”

“He’s the nicest person I think I’ve ever met. He’s so honest. He’s so respectful.” Peggy Rey
“She’s a great lady. She’s very caregiving, very loving. She’s a great friend to me.” Wilfredo Salaman